She was a bourgeois teenager on a shopping trip from the suburbs; he was 45 and a world-famous artist wandering the boulevards of Paris in search of a chance encounter. She was Marie-Thérèse Walter; he was, of course, Pablo Picasso.
Their paths crossed on the evening of Saturday 8 January, 1927, outside Galeries Lafayette, a Parisian department store where Marie-Thérèse had come to buy a then-fashionable blouse with Peter Pan collar. At the time, Picasso was starting to feel stifled by his loveless marriage to Olga Khokhlova, a Russian ex-ballerina whom he’d married in 1918, and was seeking new inspiration.
Picasso’s biographer John Richardson described Olga as having ‘reddish hair, a lithe body and a look of wistful Swan Lake melancholy’. Marie-Thérèse, in contrast, was golden-haired, blue-eyed and sensuously formed. ‘I’d like to do a portrait of you,’ the artist said to her. ‘I feel we’re going to do great things together. I am Picasso.’
Marie-Thérèse was impressed by his confidence, and within a few days she had visited the artist’s studio on Paris’s Right Bank to model for him. It was not long before she had also become his lover. ‘Their passionate affair would define Picasso’s life and art for the next decade,’ says Jay Vincze, Head of Impressionist and Modern Art at Christie’s in London. Femme écrivant (‘Woman Writing’), from 1934, which is being offered at auction on 27 June, is among a number of images that have sealed Marie-Thérèse’s status as one of the great muses in art history.
Richardson describes how she inspired the ‘most ecstatically erotic’ works of Picasso’s career (in 2010, a notable example, Femme nue, feuilles et buste, was sold for $106,482,496 at Christie’s in New York). Femme écrivant, however, focuses on an equally important, non-sexual part of their relationship. It depicts Marie-Thérèse — sitting on an ornate chair, pen in hand and with her eyes downturned — in the act of writing a letter.
The setting is the secluded château of Boisgeloup near Gisors, a small village northwest of Paris, which Picasso had bought in 1930. It served as a love nest for the couple, complete with a studio in which he could assure Olga he was working.
‘Picasso is obsessed with depicting his sitters in a state of unconsciousness,’ explains art historian Diana Widmaier Picasso, the granddaughter of Picasso and Marie-Thérèse. ‘Here, he is capturing this intense concentration of a woman who is not only writing but also dreaming. In a way it’s a reverie; a double dream because Picasso is dreaming about Marie-Thérèse who is dreaming about him. We enter an intimacy, and that’s what makes the painting so charged.’
Their affair was cloaked in secrecy, so that the couple wrote to one another prolifically — these letters remain in the Picasso family. ‘He asked me to write to him every day — otherwise, he said, he'd be ill,’ Marie-Thérèse recalled in later life. (Among the lines written by Picasso back to her include, ‘MT, mother of sparkling perfumes pungent with star jasmines… I love you more than I’ll ever be able to love’.)
‘With Marie-Thérèse by his side, this was perhaps the most joyous period of his life’
In Femme écrivant, Marie-Thérèse sits in front of a window, the light from outside illuminating her delicate features in what is otherwise a dimly lit room, which, it could be argued, is a reflection of the clandestine nature of the lovers’ relationship. Marie-Thérèse takes up most of the pictorial space, her body and face composed of a series of ample, interlocking planes.
There’s a hint of voyeurism, too: the artist catching his subject unawares — a subject with her breasts exposed, at that — but, in the main, this is a blissful vision of a radiant girl, the gentle brushstrokes reflecting the softness of her skin.
‘Before the Spanish Civil War erupted [in 1936], and with Marie-Thérèse by his side, this was perhaps the most joyous period of his life,’ says Vincze. ‘And that’s clearly visible in art works such as Femme écrivant.’
In an arrangement that apparently suited both parties, the lovers never actually lived together, nor shared the associated strains or banalities of everyday life. In December 1934, however, almost eight years after their first meeting, Marie-Thérèse fell pregnant. Their daughter Maya, Diana Widmaier Picasso’s mother, was born the following year.
Neither party knew it at the time but Femme écrivant captured a high point in their romantically escapist idyll. Like a star jasmine, their love still bloomed with vitality, and their relationship continued into the 1940s. Marie-Thérèse, however, had by this time been eclipsed in Picasso’s affections by another woman, the photographer Dora Maar.
‘Picasso kept this work for a very long time,’ confirms Diana Widmaier Picasso. ‘It was a very, very important work: one of the last paintings from the golden period representing Marie-Thérèse.’